“It’s only words, And words are all I have” sang the Bee Gees (and later of course covered by seminal boy band Boyzone) and on that theme here is a quick post about the importance of clear language and how every word matters.
Christmas bin collections are one of those local government functions around which there always seems to be a substantial amount of citizen cynicism; a hair-trigger barely held for 11.5 months before the announcement of changes to the usual pattern are announced.
Communication should always seek to be clear, to be easily understood and not easily misconstrued but in situations where you know your audience can react with anger (seemingly no matter what you’re telling them) that need is ever greater. Every word matters.
Take this post by hyperlocal site Birmingham Updates on this very subject – bin collections in the forthcoming festive season (hat tip to Stuart Harrison for the comment spot). The headline for their post this year is ‘Birmingham refuse collections for Christmas and New Year’. Now, while the English is a fascinating and multi-faceted language is can also be ambiguous, for native speakers and ‘not-first language’ folk alike – and this a textbook case.
Refuse / refuse. Certainly a preferred local government piece of jargon referring to waste and its collection. But could also be read as denial of that service, a stubborn ‘we won’t’ delivered straight to the citizens poised for their council to hear just that.
Comments under the piece when posted via the site’s Facebook page suggest they have been read in this latter way. ‘There won’t be any [collections] just like last year’, ‘drop them off at the council house, they soon move them’, ‘I’ll be dropping my rubbish on the corner. how u like them apples’, ‘is that re-fuse or refuse collection??’.
The site’s use of ‘refuse’ as a synonym for rubbish is justified and the implied meaning fairly assumed to be obvious – this is not a post to point a finger at them but they have served a timely example. The specific language we use should be as considered as the wider message we communicate. Assumptions are one of the easier traps to fall into as communicators and so it’s always worth a step back and look from a different angle. Or even better some evidence gathering to help you see the forest through the trees (metaphors have their own special place in the confusing language spectrum).
In previous projects I have banged on to my teams about how ‘every word matters’ and led writing, testing, evaluating, and adapting cycles to make sure that online content (in particular) is using the right language, the right layout, the right visual design to achieve objectives. I have been obsessive about detail down to the multi-varient testing sentence structure to get the best understanding and therefore the best outcome. It’s about optimisation and evolution as much as creation.
These testing phases have led to some surprising discoveries, things that have challenged assumptions in multiple ways. As local government communicators we’ve long fought the battle for plain English – I doubt there are many of us not sporting the scars of ‘it’s a tip not a civic amenity point’. But guess what…the battle has raged so long the public have adapted. While we have encouraged our organisations to think and speak more like the people they serve, those people have impatiently and grudgingly got on with starting to think like the organisations in order to find their way to those services.
In one round of testing – specifically looking at naming of sections in a structure (or nomenclature if we were using jargon) – we proposed the use of the word ‘tip’. Our users expressed surprise, and a little confusion. ‘Yeah, that’s what everyone calls it, but we know you call it something else and I’d be looking for those words. I know I have to look for your words now.’ We have fallen further down the communications rabbit hole and must look again at what we do. This user behaviour is not an excuse to give up and stay in the comfort of the language our organisations have created for themselves, but a challenge to us as communicators to mediate more, to challenge everything, to try and move faster to communicate successfully.
Evaluation is great – but can sometimes come too late in the process. Get some testing of your messages and your wording in early. Make sure that every word you use, every nuance of the language is working in the way you want and expect it to.
It’s not just what you need to say, but how you say it. Ride that line between dumbed down and plain, find the beauty in the simplicity of being functional. Be clear, be unambiguous. And question everything, test even more.
Enjoy some Bee Gees…
Birmingham is having its rubbish collected this Christmas, just not on Christmas Day, Boxing Day or Bank Holidays in lieu where those days fall on a weekend. They were almost certainly meaning refuse ‘rubbish’ not a sudden and stubborn refusal to take your bin.